Everyone is going to hate me. The other writers at CMSWire are going to hate me. My editor is going to hate me. A whole bunch of experience professionals are going to hate me. And, a whole bunch of site owners are going to hate me. Why? I’m about to expose a dirty little secret that many of the above people know but avoid like the plague and because a lot of content creators make money by avoiding this secret. And more than anything else, because a lot of people don’t want to admit that their creation is mediocre. I am going to tell you, the reader, how to make your site, your customer and user experiences, heck, even your relationships better than mediocre.
If Good is Good Enough, Stop Reading
If you are interested in making your customer and user experiences good, this article is not for you. If, on the other hand, you are interested in making your customer and user experiences great, read on. Before I expose the secret, there is one disclaimer that needs to be addressed: This “tip” does not apply to beginners in experience design and strategy. If you are reading this as input before you design your first experience, you need to take this article with a grain of salt. You can still get value out of it, and its core message will still be true, but you will more than likely not have enough experience to break out of mediocrity just yet. People who are just starting their journeys in designing sites, creating experiences and entering into relationships still can find value in engaging in the activity I am about to label as “beyond worthless."
The one tip to making your site, customer experiences and relationships better than mediocre is: Never read a “top X tips” article again. Yes, I literally mean never. Top tips articles are beyond worthless for people seeking to break out of mediocrity, and by “beyond worthless” I mean they actually hurt your chances. Before you label me insane and decide this article is worthless, give me a chance to explain why this is so.
For the sake of simplicity, at this point, I’ll narrow down the focus to user and customer experiences. But please don’t forget that this one tip can be applied across a variety of disciplines and concepts, up to and even including personal relationships.
The Bell Curve
The bell curve is a statistical distribution that describes almost, if not all continuums, in our universe, including customer experiences. Exceptional experiences are, by definition, exceptional. And, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but if you are not delivering exceptional experiences, you are delivering mediocre ones. Here are some illustrative examples: Nordstrom regularly delivers exceptional retail experiences; Macy’s regularly delivers mediocre experiences. It’s not that Macy’s cannot on occasion deliver exceptional experiences; it is just that they are too modally constrained to have it be anything but the exception. This does not mean Macy’s is bad, it just means they are mediocre; i.e., in the middle of the bell curve.
So what is it that constrains organizations from breaking out of the middle of the pack? The constraint comes from a slavish worship of process and an overly quantitative focus. People often decry the end justifying the means but neglect to mention that the opposite orientation is just as deplorable.
When you worship the shovel rather than the hole it is intended to dig, you are exhibiting what is called formalism. This shows up quite often in customer service interactions when a service representative says, “I can’t do that." You’ll notice that this is something Nordstrom representatives very rarely, if ever, say. Because they are led by qualitative outcomes, rather than an arbitrary process. I am not saying that you should not have processes. I am saying that process should exist as a guide, but the end goals that the process is intended to achieve are the measure that should determine success or failure.
No Way as Way
Nordstrom and others, who continually pursue excellence, may not know that they are following in the steps of Bruce Lee and practicing a philosophy coined by Krishnamurti as “no way as way." In the course of Bruce Lee’s journey to become the best martial artist in the world, he uncovered the paradox of “no way as way” in the teachings of the philosopher Krishnamurti. Bruce Lee discovered that to really break out of the pack and transcend the styles and forms he had been taught, he had to eschew all styles and forms and embrace the idea that the styles and forms themselves constrained his ability to conceive of new ways of being. It was only when Lee shed the arbitrary rules and rigid forms that he was able to adapt quickly enough to the dynamic needs required by unpredictable contexts. When you notice that process, by definition, leads to predictable results, it becomes apparent that process itself cannot ever deliver exceptional results. In fact, process in a vacuum can guarantee unexceptional results.
The inherent problem with tips articles is that those who read them are deluding themselves in the belief that they will achieve awesomeness. All too often, people use checklists in their work as a means of guaranteeing success rather than what they actually are: A tool to lessen the chance of abject failure. That’s the dirty secret -- All those X tips to do Y articles that pervade the annals of the Internet are only tools that can help you lower your chance of failure and will constrain your thinking to the paths that lead smack-dab to the middle of the bell curve.
The Path to Excellence
Here’s the nasty problem: There is no path. A path is a track or trail that one can discern by the evidence that others have travelled it before. In order to achieve excellence, you must chart your own course and do things that others consider foolhardy. This does not mean that by following your own compass that you will not experience transitory failures. In fact, it almost, if not exclusively, guarantees that you will. A necessary ingredient to achieving excellence is taking risks that could lead to failure, and sometimes will. The insight to be taken here is that failures, like beauty, only exist in the mind of the beholder. Like Edison said (paraphrased): “I have not failed (at making an electric light). I have found 10,000 ways that don't work.”
So what should you do with all that extra time you spent reading tips articles? Start reading basic abstract works instead of cookbook-like tip articles. Start seeking out great practitioners in any and all fields and find ways to collaborate with them. Start trying “crazy” things and break down the illusionary barriers that your discipline has set down before you. As I said earlier, I have no idea if you’ll actually arrive at excellence; I just know that the safe path of process and checklists will never lead you there.